Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Among the many famous stories in Vayera is the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel, who was a great teacher of Mussar, asked why Abraham dared to challenge God by saying, "Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" (Gen. 18:24). I will let Rabbi Finkel's answer speak for itself:
Abraham was the epitome of compassion, and his greatest opponent was Sodom. Its residents were the exact opposite of Abraham. In their evil ways, they were opposed to everything that he preached and did for them. They fought against him and against all the good that he implanted in people. Abraham, then, should have been happy that the cities were to be overturned. But that was not the case. Instead, he stood up and pleaded for them. This was because Abraham was loyal to his views and his moral convictions. If he had been happy at the destruction of Sodom, that itself would have been similar to the ways of the Sodomites. Rather, Abraham's belief was to help everyone and to not have anyone harmed. Abraham was interested in having sin perish, but not the sinners. (Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel)
Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
Lech Lecha is arguably one of the strangest phrases in Torah. Lech is a command that means, “you, go forth!” Lecha is a pronoun that generally means, “you” or “yourself.” This strange repetition of “you” is problematic for two reasons. First, it is grammatically “incorrect” (so far as anything in Torah can be labeled as such). Second, Torah itself is incredibly economical with its language – every word has purpose. So how do we understand this simple yet challengingly redundant little phrase? Rabbi Michael Boyden offers a unique insight. He suggests that lech lecha could mean, “Go to yourself.” Although at first glance this translation doesn't seem to fit into the overall context of the verse, it does make grammatical sense. Here is how the entire verse might read with his translation: “The Lord said to Abram: Go you, to yourself, from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1). I wonder if our journey as a Jewish people parallels Abram’s journey to become the first Jew. Each of us in on a spiritual journey, just as collectively we are also on a spiritual journey – and the purpose of that journey may just be to move from where we are, from what is comfortable and familiar, towards an uncertain Promised future – where we can be true to ourselves, and even more, to God.
Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
Who was to blame for the flood? According to the midrash it was Noah's fault because he failed to protest against the corrupt actions of his generation. The name Noach itself is suggestive, because it can mean "rest," as if to say that Noah rested when he should have taken action.
It seems to me that, like Noah, we live in a time filled with hamas (corruption/violence). Extremism and brutality are on the rise, conflict is intensifying in the Middle East along with a growing refugee crisis, and Palestinians are attacking Israelis in what might become a Third Intefada. Antisemitism is growing in Europe, and here in the States we continue to ignore the racial and economic injustices that make life unbearable for so many of our citizens.
If we rest like Noah, another flood may come - a flood of our own making rather than from God. Perhaps we weren't the cause of all of the world's troubles, but we can sure be part of the solution. Wherever we live, let's speak out to effect change. We have the power to influence our world, and now is not the time to rest.
Genesis 1:1 - 6:8
The rabbis say that one should not ask about what happened before “In the Beginning …” Then, they go on to offer multiple answers! In the classic anthology of midrash, Bereishit Rabbah (1:4), we read: “Six things preceded the creation of the world. Some were actually created, and others came up only in God’s thought as what was to be created. Torah and the throne of glory were created. The creation of the fathers [and mothers], Israel, the Temple and the name of the Messiah came up only in God’s thought …” As we begin the Torah again this Shabbat with Bereishit, we might ask ourselves how we plan to build on the holidays that are now behind us. We have a New Year, a new beginning, and yet, before we can really create whatever we have chosen to make of this year, we should also engage in a time of planning, and of developing the tools we need for success. Let’s learn from our Creator and take the time now, each in our own ways, to articulate our goals for the year, the steps we will need to take to reach them, the things we may need to overcome, and what it will all look like when we succeed. After all, if it’s good enough for God, it’s probably good enough for us.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras